Race, Class and Gender in the United States: Summary

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about how sociologists understand the common categories of race, class, and gender. We will examine how sociologists define these categories and how they inform inequality in the United States.

Race, Class, and Gender

What do we think about when we contemplate differences in our society? Sociologists think a lot about differences and how differences shape life chances. In this lesson, we'll talk about three major categories of difference that shape opportunities and life chances in our society: race, class, and gender.

Race refers to the observable, physical differences, such as skin color, among people in our society. Race, according to social scientists, actually has very little basis in biology. In fact, there are more differences within groups than between them. Race in our society is considered a social construct.

In sociological terms this means that we use it as a way to define people as inferior and superior based on assumptions we have about different races. Race is the result of social processes that make some people subject to unequal treatment because of physical differences.

It's important to note that race is different from ethnicity. From a sociological perspective, ethnicity refers to shared culture, practices, or values among groups of people.

Social Class refers broadly to one's position in the United States based on income, education level, and access to other important resources. The United States has a somewhat rigid class structure meaning that mobility is actually quite difficult.

The United States is a society based on class stratification, which means there is a great deal of income and wealth inequality between those at the bottom of the strata and those at the top. The gap between the richest Americans and the poorest Americans is much larger than in many other industrialized nations.

Gender refers to the social construction of male or female in our society. It is important to note that sociologists think about gender as separate from sex, which refers to the biological and anatomical differences between males and females. This includes such things as differing levels of hormones and different sex organs.

Think of gender as the way we define people in our social world. Wearing pink, taking ballet lessons, and playing with dolls are behaviors that have no biological bases, but they are behaviors we associate with being female. When we think of male, we think of things like the color blue or playing football.

Categorical Inequalities

So now that we know what these categories are, how do they influence inequality?

Racial inequality in the United States in very pronounced. For example, racial minorities have lower incomes and less accumulated wealth than whites. Discrimination in the workplace and in schools is still very common. Black Americans face higher unemployment rates than white Americans.

Gender inequality can be seen in a number of different venues. Women earn less money, on average, than men do, even in similar occupations with similar educational backgrounds. Women are less likely to be the leaders of corporations, are underrepresented in fields like technology and engineering, and are more likely to bear most of the burden of child care.

Social class shapes our life chances in important ways. People in lower classes have less access to opportunities like education and often live in worse neighborhoods. People of lower socioeconomic status have less access to important resources like quality health care.


One way that sociologists often talk about these categories is through intersectionality theory. This is sociological approach to thinking about how race, class, and gender interact with one another. In other words, inequality based on these categories usually isn't the result of simply one of these categories. It's more likely that it's the result of these categories working together. People can experience privilege and disadvantage at the same time.

For example, Joe and Marcus work together, have similar social class backgrounds, are both heterosexual males, and have similar levels of education. However, Marcus is African American and Joe is white. Marcus experiences inequality at work and is often passed over for promotions or raises in favor of white colleagues who are not as qualified.

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